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Peter Cave stumbles on some slippery slope arguments.
The ethics of voluntary euthanasia is ever being discussed in the press. The screening of Death on Request, showing a doctor killing his suffering patient at the patient’s request, stimulated further coverage. Many pundits were eager to condemn, nodding sagely and muttering about slippery slopes. Peter Cave has been allowed to listen in to a new order, the Order of the Non-Copulatory, which takes the argument where it leads. Here is his exclusive report.
Voluntary sexual intercourse, we can reveal, is now conclusively demonstrated to be mistaken. Staring at a mirror early in the morning has provided some of us with inklings of the act’s wrongness for some time; but haunting screen images have recently brought the issue to a wider audience. No longer need we rely upon such transient contingency from the world empirical to cast doubt upon copulatory acts; the new Order of the Non-Copulatory offers irrefutable a priori reasoning, reasoning which establishes the conclusion that sexual intercourse is morally wrong. Members of the Order – shunners of indeterminacy and greyness to a man and to a woman – advance a black and white case with compassion and understanding. I have been permitted to listen in.
Novice: Formerly I delighted in fornication, but now I realise the folly of my vice. Remind me, Sister, of the reasons why sexual intercourse – voluntary sexual intercourse, for I did nothing against anyone’s wishes – is so evil.
Sister Leonora: It is as clear as the propositions that two plus two equals four and that the square on the hypotenuse equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides of a rightangled euclidean triangle, though arguably and happily it does not possess the same degree of clarity as the truth of Fermat’s Last Theorem or Sister Ethel’s potato and elderberry home-made wine. The reasoning may be summed up in the words “slippery slope”. Voluntary intercourse must not be permitted for otherwise society would slip into the ruination of enforced fornication.
Novice: Ah, yes, I remember. You are following the teachings of many – particularly precious papery pundits such as Sister Melanie Phillips – who deal with related ethical issues of similar gravity. They are of the Order of To Order To Keep Going Come What May, are they not?
Sister Leonora: Indeed they are, though their order to keep going does not, of course, apply to the sexual act. But yes, ‘Keep Going’ fairly sums up their position, just as ‘Stop Coming’ is an abbreviation for ours. Sister Melanie’s teachings for example – frequently to be found in the Gospel of the Guardian and Observer – show us the evils of voluntary euthanasia. We apply her teachings, following exactly the same irresistible reasoning, to voluntary sexual intercourse.
Novice: Please remind me how the teachings lead us to the truth on this matter.
Sister Leonora: Nothing could be simpler. One basic problem is that voluntary sex (to use the colloquial abbreviation) may not be truly voluntary just as, indeed, voluntary euthanasia may not be truly voluntary.
Novice: So, we might get the two confused sometimes. Therefore voluntary sex is wrong even when we have not confused it with the involuntary..?
Sister Leonora: Quite so and…
Sister Severe: This deep difficulty of not knowing what is truly so, indeed an epistemic difficulty, pervades our life. As you know, you cannot be sure that low fat spread is not butter, nor yet that it is butter, nor yet that you can’t believe it’s not butter. Well, that’s why you won’t find me eating anything like that. And as for those other things you’re not sure about - meat filled sausages, French cheeses from Somerset, Virginia Bottomley and holidays of a lifetime…
Sister Leonora: Now, now, that is sufficient buttering and butting in, Sister Severe. You don’t want to become like Sister Silly who, because she once mistook her brother for a hat, thinks it best to treat all hats as her brothers and all the Brothers as her hats.
Novice: Ah, so this is just a general epistemic problem about when and whether we know certain things. But on some occasions do we not know that sexual consent is, indeed, consent? And on those occasions…
Sister Leonora: Never mind all that, Sister Melanie has another knock-down consideration, namely, that voluntary euthanasia leads inexorably to involuntary euthanasia. Now, this consideration applies all the more to sexual engagements in life’s carnal carnival.
Novice: Ah, I understand. In lands where sexual intercourse voluntary is permitted, you can witness inexorable sexual leadings, taking us from “yes” meaning “yes” to “yes” meaning “yes, but” and then “eh, well, all right” meaning “must you?” to a dozy sigh meaning sometimes “maybe, yes” and sometimes “maybe, no” and sometimes “go away – oh, if you must!” And yet each change is so small that if sexual intercourse is permitted in the one case, it should be equally permitted in the other. Perils of plied alcohol, persuasive words (“oh, just this once”), of job offers, casting couches and dinner dates lead us through a whole range of date rapes and acquaintance rapes; and these could all be morally justified courtesy of the slope.
Sister Leonora: Quite! And it is just the possibility of all of this…
Novice: It is, indeed, truly astonishing that society believes it can draw the voluntary/involuntary sexual distinction when it’s all so fuzzy.
Sister Leonora: Perfectly correct. Our Order firmly believes that if it is at all possible for A not to be clearly discerned from B, then if B is discredited, then so must be A. Rape is discredited and so therefore must be all sexual voluntary intercourse.
Sister Severe: And more! When I look at the colour spectrum, greens merge into blues. I see night merging into day, wakefulness into sleepingness, beginnings into ends and the M1 into the M6. So much the worse, I declare, for colours, for day, for…
Novice: But, thinking about it, if you’re right, then you’ve just turned the slope round and are sliding in the other direction and so if one slide is unjustified then so is… Sister Leonora: Now, now, that’s enough, all of you – especially you, Sister Severe! A new member of our Order must be taught how not to run before she’s taught how not to walk – let alone how not to…
Sister Severe: Just my point again! For running cannot be clearly distinguished from walking, nor walking from…
Novice: But do not people talk of their right to engage in voluntary sex? Do they not speak of personal autonomy?
Sister Leonora: True, but personal autonomy is not the sole determining factor here. After all, no one should complain that they are prevented from acting in ways which would harm others.
Novice: Yet if a couple engages in voluntary sex, they may be harming no one and…
Sister Leonora: You are forgetting about the slippery effects on society, as Sister Melanie has shown so well with regard to euthanasia. If people engage in sex, they are making a judgement about the quality of life, about what is valuable in life, and so they may affect others, causing the frail and vulnerable to give way to their passions or even causing them to think they possess lusts when, truly, they are lustless and listless.
Novice: Ah, yes, I forgot that in such actions, I am also responsible for what others do. I must remember that. Even if someone is strongly opposed to involuntary intercourse and herself engages only in the voluntary, none the less, indeed by that very engagement, she bears some responsibility for the rapists and persuasion rapists and date rapists and “have another drink” rapists and “wouldn’t you like promotion” rapists and so on. But tell me, how do we expect our Order ultimately to have any members at all, if all sex is wrong?
Sister Leonora: Oh, dear me, you are about to confuse having sex with procreating. Sister Melanie clearly explained how people sometimes confused killing with seeking to relieve a patient’s distress by a means which you know will happen to hasten death. Killing involves an intention to bring about death; relieving patients’ distress involves no such intention. So, we may intend to procreate and even know that it will involve using those funny bits of our bodies, but the intercourse of those funny bodily bits is not something that we intend to have.
Novice: Ah, yes, I had forgotten about the subtlety of the intention/knowledge distinction here – in what, I believe, you call the doctrine of double effect. But can we ever be sure that someone truly is only knowing and not intending? After all, you raised such a worry earlier on with the voluntary/involuntary distinction.
Sister Leonora: Now, now, I hope that you are not going to become a logic-chopper like all those so-called philosophers and analysts and…
Novice: Indeed not, I acknowledge your wisdom. Tell me, though, why is that member – the one over there – so quiet?
Sister Leonora: You’ve spotted Sister Silent. She has true enlightenment, fully grasping the greyness of the world. She sees how all good things can lead to bad, how all truth can lead to falsity, how the whole world is one big slope, yet even how slope-ness itself is sloppy and slippery, sliding from the horizontal to the vertical. As a result, she thinks nothing and says nothing and does nothing.
All: She must be truly blessed.
© Peter Cave 1997
Although Peter Cave lectures in philosophy, he denies teaching any of the Sisters of the Order of the Non-Copulatory